Roels and De Swaef are based in Ghent, Belgium and have been working together since 2007. Roels studied animation and began his career making music videos, while De Swaef studied documentary film-making.
Using a mix of stop-motion animation and live action, the pair have created some beautifully made shorts with handcrafted sets and puppets. Their 40-second short Fight featured two woollen characters wrestling, while an ad for Belgian bus company De Lijn starred a walking, talking miniature stress doll. Their most ambitious project to date, however, is the 16-minute short Oh Willy!
The film was created in 2012 and released online this week. It has won 80 awards, including the Cartoon D’Or, and tells the story of a lonely introvert who returns to the nudist colony where he grew up to see his dying mother, before embarking on a journey of self-discovery in the forest and striking up a relationship with a lovable hairy beast.
There’s some impressive craftsmanship throughout, with bathrooms, living room, cliffsides and woodland scenes constructed from wool, textiles, wood and plaster. There’s even a woollen rotating fan, a woolly guitar and some charming fabric rabbits and goats.
Roels says the pair had the idea for the film’s protagonist before they came up with a plot. Willy was inspired by two men De Swaef had spotted in Ghent, who were responsible for fishing bikes out of the canal. “They were like Tweedledum and Tweedledee visually, and one of their names was Willy, so we had the idea for this older, introverted man in his own little world,” explains Roels.
Willy first appeared in Emma’s graduation film, Soft Plants, which Roels describes as a “much cruder” production. “We didn’t know much about stop-motion animation, but we were using the same techniques and materials, and it was quite successful. After that we felt we had another story to tell with the same character,” he adds.
For Oh Willy!, the duo worked with French production company Vivement Lundi!, who built the sets, and Belgian animation studio Beast. The film was the first time Roels and De Swaef had worked with a crew – their previous films were made in Roels’ mum’s attic, where they taught themselves how to use stop-motion. It took around four months to construct the sets for Oh Willy!, followed by another four months shooting and two months of editing, says De Swaef.
“Every shot in the film took between four and 11 hours to animate,” she says. “Before that, Marc would be setting up lighting and cameras and it would take around four to five hours to create the right lighting, so every shot was about two days in total. But we did have three sets and two people animating at once,” she adds.
At one point, the workload was so intense, the pair decided to move into the Beast Studios to finish the production. “We wanted to cut down on commute times, so we decided to construct a bed and sleep in the studio,” says Roels.
De Swaef worked with a small team of animators to make puppets and furniture, and worked with Roels to create detailed imagery and mood boards for the crew. “Most directors make drawings, but because we’re not very good at drawing, we’ll gather a lot of pictures like stills from films we really like. We’d give these pictures to the crew, and they would start assembling furniture from wood and resin and plaster. The last stage is always building up the fabrics, as you want to do that in a really neat way,” she says.
While most of the puppets featured in their films are handmade, Willy was constructed by specialist company Mackinnon & Saunders, who also made the puppets for Wes Anderson’s adaptation of Fantastic Mr Fox. “Inside, he’s quite a classical puppet,” says De Swaef, with metal arms and legs and moving joints.
Scenes feature some great lighting and camera work by Roels, who worked in live action after studying animation. “I think I approach the camera in a live action way,” he adds. There are some beautiful close-ups of Willy, with his wispy hair blowing in the wind, while the golden light used in woodland scenes gives the impression of a forest at sunrise.
While the pair have established a distinctive aesthetic, Roels says their work in wool and textiles came about by coincidence rather than design. De Swaef learned to knit and sew after her family moved to a farm when she was 10, and made and sold puppets while studying at university. (She still makes yeti puppets when she has the time).
“Emma and I’s first films together used some very crudely made crocheted puppets. It was the only textile we had lying around, and Emma knew how to work with it, so we just started using that and discovered that we had this really nice diffused, soft effect,” explains Roels. “We gradually refined the technique over about three or four films, so it’s just been a very organic process. We never really thought let’s do it because no one else is.”